YouTube works toward 'melt my brain' virtual reality

In his first interview as the video empire's engineering chief, Matthew Mengerink discusses virtual reality, making money and stepping into the role during trying times for YouTube's engineers.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
3 min read

YouTube's top engineer says virtual reality is a key part of the site's future.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters/Corbis

Soon after Matthew Mengerink became YouTube's engineering chief a few weeks back, he got a taste of the virtual reality footage Google has been working on but hasn't released to the public yet.

"I saw stuff that just melted my brain," Mengerink said Tuesday in his first interview since joining the Google-owned video site.

Mengerink won't go into detail about what he saw but gives general examples of the kinds of things VR can do, like taking you cycling through the Alps while you're really just on your exercise bike. Or letting you stomp around the city pretending to be Godzilla. The world's top tech companies, from Facebook to Samsung, have become enamored with virtual reality. Once mostly the dream of video game makers, Silicon Valley has expanded the vision for the technology.

"That's the future technology of YouTube," said Mengerink. "Those are the table stakes: How do you change the way people look at things?" That's probably not exactly what the site's 1 billion monthly visitors expect of YouTube. The juggernaut video service, which Google acquired in 2006, is known for its massive haul of cat videos, sports rants and makeup tutorials. But all of that is evolving as the site expands and becomes more ambitious.

On Wednesday, Google is launching YouTube Red, a subscription version of the service that nixes the ads and gives you access to original shows and movies from top YouTube talent for $10 a month. In August, Google launched YouTube Gaming, a hub dedicated to video game-related content. Google, which formed Alphabet as a new holding company for all its properties earlier this month, also plans to place the streaming media site at the heart of its virtual reality efforts. YouTube remained under Google in the reorganization.

It may not seem obvious, but Mengerink, a 43-year-old veteran of eBay and PayPal, said his e-commerce background makes him well-suited for the top engineering job at YouTube. As YouTube grows and looks for more ways to make money, Mengerink said there are similarities between maintaining sites like eBay and YouTube. eBay has various levels of sellers. YouTube has both casual uploaders and video creators whose goal is to make money.

"We need to make sure that monetization doesn't interfere with the joy of watching videos," he said. "That's a hard balance to strike."


Matthew Mengerink became YouTube's engineering chief this fall.


Mengerink's challenges aren't only technical. He steps into the role after YouTube's previous engineering chief, Venkat Panchapakesan, died in May. In the interim, engineering executive John Harding had taken on a leadership role. The move to bring in an outsider was controversial to some YouTube employees, according to a report by The Information.

"If I were in their shoes, I would find this very jarring," Mengerink said. "This is a particularly trying time for the organization. I think there's a bit of skepticism, and rightfully so."

"Humbly speaking, it's upon me to prove myself to everyone here," he added, noting that Harding told him he's "committed to the long term."

For Google, YouTube has become a crucial part of the company. When the search giant announced quarterly results last week, a big part of Google's success was the "amazing momentum" of YouTube, said Google CEO Sundar Pichai. There has been an uptick in mobile advertising, and people are spending 60 percent more time watching videos on the site than they did a year ago. Meanwhile, competitors like Facebook and Amazon's Twitch, aimed at video gamers, have become more aggressive in going to battle with YouTube.

As for virtual reality, Google last year unveiled Cardboard, a no-frills kit made of, well, cardboard that turns your smartphone into a VR headset. In May, the company said people would be able to directly watch VR videos on Cardboard through YouTube. All you will need to do is choose the VR function from the YouTube smartphone app.

"As virtual reality comes into being, how do we make sure people experience it on YouTube first?" said Mengerink. "This is the first inning of a nine-inning game."

Correction, 6:45 a.m. PT October 28: The month of Venkat Panchapakesan's death has been fixed.